‘Something in the Water’ by Catherine Steadman

Fiction – paperback; Simon & Schuster UK; 368 pages; 2019.

If you found $1million that didn’t belong to you, what would you do? Take it and say nothing, or report it to police?

In Catherine Steadman’s debut novel Something in the Water, this is the moral dilemma faced by Erin, a documentary film maker, and her new husband, Mark, an out-of-work fund manager, who discover a bag filled with money — and lots more other “goodies” inside — when scuba diving during their honeymoon on the French Polynesian island of Bora Bora.

When they decide to smuggle it home to London, the pair set in motion a chain of events that will tip both their worlds upside down.

A tightly plotted tale

Of course, as with every crime thriller I’ve ever read, it’s difficult to review without giving away crucial plot spoilers, so forgive me if what follows is a little vague. Let’s just say that Something in the Water is a fast-paced, tightly plotted story that heads into some dangerous criminal underworld territory.

Apart from a few aspects, it feels largely believable throughout, which is some achievement given that Mark and Erin are portrayed as essentially squeaky clean lovebirds. How they get caught up in events much bigger than themselves makes the story more imminently relatable, because we are all capable of making bad choices or having our moral compass go a little skewiff when there’s a lot of money at stake.

Steadman, who is also British TV and stage actor, structures her story so that Erin’s working life  — putting together a documentary following three prisoners about to be paroled — collides neatly with her new criminal life, which adds an extra dimension of jeopardy to the tale. And it is this jeopardy that propels the narrative forward in a truly suspenseful and heart-hammering way. I don’t recall being this caught up in a crime thriller since reading John Grisham’s The Firm almost 30 years ago!

She also does something super clever: in the opening chapter she has her female protagonist digging her husband’s grave, so you immediately want to know how events escalated to that point. Did Erin kill Mark, or has she found Mark’s body and decided to bury it herself?

Have you ever wondered how long it takes to dig a grave? Wonder no longer. It takes an age. However long you think it takes, double that.

The story then spools back to the honeymoon and then painstakingly outlines what happened on that fateful trip followed by the aftermath.

An intelligent thriller

Despite the octane-fuelled pace, Steadman doesn’t skimp on detail. Her characters are well drawn, the scenes are vivid and alive, the dialogue authentic, the sense of paranoia palpable. There’s an air of intelligence about the story, too: this isn’t a dumbed down thriller for a dumbed down audience.

And the best bit? The plot doesn’t hinge on the gruesome murder of a woman, which has become so de rigueur in this genre that I’ve stopped buying books (and watching films) that use this lazy device. There’s no gratuitous violence, either.

Apparently the film rights to Something in the Water have already been sold — to Reese Witherspoon’s production company — and I can see why, because it’s such a visual, plot driven, story. (The book is also a Reece Witherspoon Book Club Pick. I’m not sure that’s any indicator of quality, but it does mean the book will attract a large audience.)

I thoroughly enjoyed this crime thriller and look forward to reading Steadman’s next book, Mr Nobody, which is due for publication early next year.

6 thoughts on “‘Something in the Water’ by Catherine Steadman

  1. You gave it higher marks than I felt while reading it, but your point of de riguer plots in which the woman dies absolutely to be applauded.

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    • I’m not sure when I realised, and I can’t recall what prompted me to notice, but when I took stock of the number of crime books (and movies) that are all about women being murdered I was horrified. Using dead women as plot devices (and for entertainment) has become so normalised that we become numb to it. And when we are numb to it in fiction, we barely blink when it’s real life. I started banging on about this on Twitter and said we need to change the story. Last week I noticed there’s an Australian organisation calling for the same thing in the context of domestic violence so perhaps the mood is changing…

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  2. I’ve never dug a grave, but I’ve often thought authors totally underestimate the effort it takes to dig a hole say 6 ft x 3 ft by 6 ft deep. (Though not so bad in Perth which is all sand). As for finding and keeping a million dollars, I’d certainly try, but the closest I ever got was 20 bucks in desperate times and my young first wife got the sack over it.

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    • Oh, there’s a story there, Bill, about your wife being sacked!

      I remember in the mid-1990s someone found a barrel stuffed with cash under the steps at Balaclava Train Station in Melbourne. Another barrel was found a week or so later. The people who found the money successfully applied to court to keep a substantial amount of it. Finders keepers etc. For a long time I couldn’t walk past that station without wanting to do some searching of my own 😄

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